It’s Time to End Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles in Maryland

By Players Coalition Members — Torrey Smith (Former NFL Player), Aveion Cason (Former NFL Player) and Jeremy Ebobisse (MLS Player)

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Artwork by Laurel Raymond (@RayOfLaurel)

The United States prides itself on guaranteeing all citizens the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it remains the only nation in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole. Thirty years ago, the United Nations issued the Convention on the Rights of the Child in which it outlined various protections that should be extended to all individuals under 18, including protection from being sentenced to life imprisonment. Despite this fact, in Maryland alone, there are currently more than 300 people serving life sentences for crimes they committed while still juveniles.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and in six additional states, there are no juvenile offenders serving these immorally harsh sentences according to The Sentencing Project.

In February of 2020, The Juvenile Restoration Act (HB 1437) — which would ban life-without-parole sentences to minor offenders in Maryland — was filed by sponsor Delegate Jazz Lewis but was never voted upon due to the pandemic cutting the session short. It is now a new year with a new legislative session and Players Coalition urges our politicians to do what is right, moral and just and pass the Juvenile Restoration Act.

Maryland’s current laws are out of sync with how the Supreme Court has ruled when it comes to harsh sentences for minors over the last 15 years. For example, in 2012 The Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles with their decision in Miller v. Alabama. The court viewed these sentences as a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Supreme Court reiterated its stance on mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles in a 6–3 vote in favor of Montgomery. Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability. Moreover, the severest punishment must be reserved for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.’” Instead of reserving the punishment for extreme cases, Maryland makes a standard practice of robbing juvenile offenders of a chance to be rehabilitated. This is unconstitutional and needs to be stopped.

Notably, extreme sentences are disproportionately levied against children of color, further demonstrating the need to end them. Even the State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is calling out the system. Earlier this month, Mosby issued a statement in which she said Maryland has “a mass incarceration problem caused by lengthy and excessive sentences, which are disproportionately imposed on people of color.” According to a 2018 report from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, African Americans make up more than 70 percent of the prison population, even though they make up only 31 percent of the state’s residents.

Individuals under the age of eighteen are not fully developed physically, intellectually or emotionally. They are more prone to act based upon peer pressure and less likely to take consequences into account when making decisions, according to a recent study from the National Institute of Health. The majority of the courts in the United States have taken this into account with laws around juvenile sentencing and it is time for Maryland to follow suit. Yes, we must all be held accountable for our actions, but to lock away children and throw away the key — with no chance at rehabilitation — is abusive and amoral.

The Juvenile Restoration Act is supported by case law, science, data, research, and both sides of the political spectrum. It is good public policy. It gives a second chance to Maryland’s kids, some of whom were never given a first chance. On behalf of the Players Coalition, we urge the Maryland legislature to act now and pass the Juvenile Restoration Act.

Players Coalition is structured as an independent 501(c)(3) (charity) and 501(c)(4) (advocacy) organization, working with professional athletes, coaches and owners across leagues to improve social justice and racial equality in our country.

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